It wasn't so much a fear of flesh that was making Pritts' skin crawl during this tour of Fat City. Rather, he was envisioning hordes of four-chinned tubbies angrily demanding that the spot be yanked. But the complaints never came, and the spot, in which a hapless teen seen spraying deodorant into bowling shoes gets a pair thrust in his face by a low-life fatso, aired without a hitch, unlike some of his work for Burger King and Washington Energy.
For example, Pritts, 37, took it a bit personally when a Burger King spot he wrote, directed and cut for Katsin Loeb, a San Francisco agency that had some BK franchisee business, was publicly slammed. "I patterned this Burger King commercial after the movie 'Marty,' where Ernest Borgnine is hen-pecked by his mother," Pritts says. "But when the commercial aired, this retarded girl's mom called the NBC affiliate in Chicago and complained that the spot is demeaning to retarded people. And that night-it must have been a slow news day-I see the lead story on the local news is 'Burger King pulls commercial,' and they're blaming me for canceling out every positive thing this woman taught her daughter."
Admittedly, the star of "Sammy" is a tormented simpleton who sits at a table squeezing his head between his hands in agony while his menacing mother browbeats him into going to the counter and saying, "I love this place." But at the time, Pritts explains, "Dan Cortese was annoying people with 'I love this place,' and I just wanted to do some 'I hate these spots' spots." The irony, however, was lost-and so was "Sammy."
Then, just as the sting from that slap of rejection was wearing off, Pritts turned the other cheek and got it smacked by animal rights weirdos who hated one of his Washington Energy commercials. Pritts had been hired by Seattle's Elgin Syferd/DDB Needham to direct a three-spot package for the utility promoting ways to conserve energy, and each spot required a different circular item on the set to be used in a matched dissolve to the Washington Energy logo. So when "Meat Locker" aired, the shivering man seen chattering between huge slabs of meat was OK. But his basset hound, whose tongue sticks to the frozen water in his bowl (the bowl being the circular mnemonic in this spot), well, that was different.
"It was this surreal commercial that wasn't at all trying to portray reality," says Trish Murray, Elgin Syferd's director of broadcast productions. "And the moment it ran, complaints began coming in from the Humane Society and animal lovers, and we were like, 'It's a fake tongue!'"
But had Pritts been allowed to use his original idea-a gerbil frozen to his exercise wheel-the PETA police would have had something real to gripe about. On the day of the shoot, Pritts showed up with a rodent he'd had snuffed, stuffed and mounted.
Fortunately, these spots are still on his reel-along with a plethora of goofy, angst-ridden characters whose subtle facial expressions are accentuated by the none too flattering look of a wide-angle lens. "The cool thing is you either love the stuff or hate it, and Rob's not bothered by what other people think," says Hal Riney ACD Rocky Botts, who worked on the Washington Energy campaign when he was at Elgin Syferd.
And these days, there's an increasing body of weird Pritts work to give thumbs up or down to. Bud Light's 1995 Super Bowl commercial, "Larry," starring a mangy mutt with gingivitis, is another Pritts dog outing. Then there's Phil Hartman's star turn in those weird Philips CD-I spots from Rubin Postaer in which the chameleon comic plays over a half-dozen roles. He's shot weirdos bathing in pure mountain streams for Sparkletts water and a guy losing his mind when he unthinkingly checks his laptop on a plane flight (for the Venice and Toronto offices of Chiat/Day, respectively), as well as Denis Leary ranting about the NHL on ESPN for Wieden & Kennedy, all the while maintaining a presence at Goodby Silverstein, where his demented outlook on life lends itself to the distorted values of Sega.
But there was a time when Pritts' career appeared to be going nowhere. "I had a false start in '91," Pritts says, which was when he showed his spec piece, "Bob in the Box," to the people at his Chicago-based production company, Backyard Productions. "I spent $4,000 on it-all the money I could afford-because I thought everything was riding on it," he continues. "Then, when I showed it, they said noth
ing, and I thought they hated it."
This depressed the hell out of him, since the "they" in question, Backyard principals Blair Stribley and Roy Skillicorn, were Pritts' former Little League buddy and high school art teacher, respectively.
As it turned out, the spec piece, featuring a wacky old man sitting in a crate and grooving to tunes, was so off the wall that the Backyarders needed time to digest it before taking it to Eisaman, Johns & Laws, Chicago, where it was turned into a spot for a local radio station and went on to win a Gold Addy and a Clio.
Pritts then went on to direct some strange "Close Encoun-ters"-inspired commercials for the Illinois Lottery, as well as a few other regional spots, but the well went dry and he began to wonder if he should direct corporate videos again-which is what he'd been doing since graduating from Southern Illinois University's film school in 1979.
"When I was in film school I dreamed of doing commercials," Pritts says, but he was drawn into corporate work by the lure of actually being able to produce, as opposed to gripping or being a production assistant. His initial work in the field, nonetheless, lacked a certain glamour. "I did film strips of office cleaning," he says now. "It was degrading. But as I got into higher level jobs, I produced, wrote and sold. I was king of the hill."
By the end of the '80s the corporate field was being pummelled by the cutbacks that were to flog the agency business a few years later, and Pritts began to feel the heat. In '89 he shot the "Bob" piece, which got the whole thing rolling.
After "Bob" got him started and he shot the Illinois Lottery campaign, however, another dry spell plagued him in 1992. Then, in early '93, Goodby hired him for a Sega spot called "Bullies," a job that bullied his career back into motion. Former Goodby staffer and Chicago native Amy Krause Rosenthal, who had shot a campaign with Pritts while at the now defunct Mitchiner Ross & Kahn, recommended him to some of her ex-colleagues, who, upon screening his reel, felt that the director's Chicago roots would allow him to better capture the down-to-earth Midwestern types they required. In the spot, a little nerdy kid is seen being harassed by menacing classmates until he gets a Sega Genesis system, after which the bullies are seen shamelessly sucking up to him. Pritts has been on a roll since then. "When Rob stopped doing corporate, he did it to do good commercials, not to get rich," Botts says. "Which is why he's in a position to separate the wheat from the chaff now."
Botts recalls their first encounter, during one of those director conference calls (once referred to by one comedy director as your "audition"). Pritts, he says, was there as an underdog, fulfilling a client requirement to bid three directors on an Elgin Syferd package for Top Food stores, and as everyone was discussing ways to showcase Top Food's zippy checkout clerks, Pritts began singing, "You gotta go, gotta go, gotta go," and suggested the checkers sing this ridiculous ditty while dancing with grocery carts. "He didn't know me from a bar of soap, and he just did that," Botts says, adding that Pritts reshaped the other two spots in the package as well. (In the finished spot, the singing clerks suddenly kick into fast-forward mode as the VO announcer explains how Top Foods knows you can't stand commercials like this.) "He has this natural ability to translate humanity and a sense of wit into the work," says Botts, "and while talking to him, you start seeing your boards come to life."
Pritts, the quintessential Midwesterner, seems pained to have moved with his wife and son to California, where Backyard has just opened an office, having lived all his life in the Chicago suburb of Arlington Heights. "This is the last thing I wanted to do," he says, "but my career is important and my family is more important, and this way I can have both."
Anyway, his preferred method of preparation is to "fly by the seat of my pants," he says. "The ideas that come off the top of my head are the purest and best. But there are times I have a vision in my head I can't describe, and I end up feeling like an autistic kid."